Family is the foundation on Kamasi Washington's new album 'Fearless Movement' - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

On the album cover of his 2015 full-length debut, The Epic, Kamasi Washington holds up his tenor sax against a bold black-and-white vision suggesting galactic portent. Make no mistake: Washington is still orbiting the upper echelon of jazz on his latest album, Fearless Movement. Yet the cover art for his latest depicts Washington in a royal stance with his feet grounded, holding a cane and draped in beads and a blue scarf. By his side, his young daughter Asha is seen running in a giddy blur; behind him stands a magnificently colorful art piece by his sister Amara. The message is clear: family is the foundation.

Washington began crafting the record while experiencing two life-changing events: the birth of Asha and the pandemic, which of course halted his relentless touring schedule. Asha herself earns a writing credit for crafting the initial melody of “Asha the First,” which also features a speedily inventive solo from Stephen Bruner, the boundary-blurring bassist known as Thundercat. He may not be a blood relative but he’s undoubtedly part of Kamasi’s musical family, the West Coast Get Down, which also features pianist Cameron Graves and drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. (both featured on this album).

Since they were teenagers, the artists have been musical comrades pushing each other to innovate and explore new artistic ground. Take a listen back to their 2004 live record, Young Jazz Giants, particularly its concluding track: a version of “Giant Steps,” a particularly intimidating standard. You can hear the players burning love for both the jazz genre and their instruments, as they flex jaw-dropping chops and fly through the famously daunting Coltrane changes. Yet there’s also a vibrant connection between the players, a familial bond formed through struggle, sacrifice, and skill.

In the years since Young Jazz Giants, recorded when he was just 23, Washington has come a long way – but he’s never lost his fire or abandoned his musical comrades. He took listeners on a cosmic jazz journey with The Epic almost a decade ago. The near three-hour opus was a sonic saga reaching for the heights of the hard-bop heavyweights (Miles, Trane, Wayne) and reminiscent of spiritual 70’s-style fusion. It was also an unexpected hit, cementing Washington as a generational star for a genre constantly proclaimed dead. Yet even with an onslaught of hype, Washington has managed to stay focused and consistent, releasing great records (Harmony of Difference, Heaven and Earth, The Choice), scoring a Michelle Obama Netflix doc, Becoming, and co-founding the Dinner Party super-group with contemporary jazz innovators Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin and legendary rap producer 9th Wonder.

Kamasi Washington - Lesanu

On the aptly-named Fearless Movement, Kamasi is active and restless as ever. He doesn’t just play the sax; he puts his body and soul into the instrument. Jazz isn’t just a genre for him; it’s a pathway towards collective spiritual ascendance and the source for his all-consuming artistic ambition, sprawling thematic concepts, and Afrofuturist influences. “Lesanu,” the album’s first track, begins with a quiet, gently swelling cymbal and twinkly chimes before a voice delivers a prayer in Ge’ez, which Washington notes is “the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible” on his website. He adds that the song is a dedication to “a friend of mine who passed away, and a moment to give thanks for my path.” It’s a song suffused with mourning and concludes with a solo seared with pain. Yet the song is driven by double drums and a handclap backbeat reminiscent of old-school gospel. Even in his most reflective moments, Washington is moving.

In various interviews, he’s talked about rhythm as a central concept behind Fearless Movement and it’s evident just about everywhere on the record. The tracks eschew straight swing and embrace smooth sixteenth-note funk and 6/8 soul. Once again, Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin both drum on the album, often simultaneously, creating sonic walls of improvised invention. One of the standout moments comes on “Road to Self (KO)” with an explosive drum solo; credits aren’t yet available but it sure sounds like Bruner, a rhythmic gymnastics able to groove and fill like few others.

The album features a few rap verses, from Coast Contra members Taj and Ras Austin and D Smoke. Washington hasn’t featured hip-hop artists on his own albums before but these guests aren’t all that surprising. The saxophonist not only played a part in creating Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, he toured as a member of Snoop Dogg’s backing band long before The Epic’s release. The choice of M.C.s here makes sense, adding to the statement of West Coast pride, but the verses are merely solid, lacking the spectacular spark of the instrumentalists. On “Dream State,” Andre 3000 joins in, lending his freeing flute playing to the creation of an improvised piece with Kamasi and his longtime crew. It’s a serene, syncopated standout, breaking away from the frenetic pace of many of the other tracks.

Kamasi Washington - Dream State

Fearless Movement is the sound of Washington digging deeper into his signature style while broadening his horizons; his tone is tight as ever but he remains loose as he listens and levitates along with his closest collaborators. Clocking in at almost ninety minutes, it’s a true journey and no onslaught of adjectives can hope to truly conjure its scope and strength. The album itself offers a taste of the live Kamasi Washington experience but listeners are in luck; on Sunday, WXPN and Ars Nova Workshop will present his headlining show at Union Transfer in Philly.

The Nu-School Collective, a trio of killer artists, are slated to open the performance. The group features Kayla Childs, who performs as a member of the Philly funk collective Omar’s Hat and makes modern soul under the name Black Buttafly. The collective also includes Brooklyn-based guitarist Keyanna Hutchinson and Stevie McKie, a legendary local drummer/producer who’s worked with Jazmine Sullivan, Jill Scott, and Bilal. Tickets and information about the show are available here. Listen to Fearless Movement below.

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